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It’s around 7 o’clock at night, and I am serving as a human shield for Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber’s manager. It may be true that journalists shouldn’t be part of the story, but right now Braun is getting cornered by dozens of camera phone-wielding, occasionally shrieking, sometimes shaking, mostly tween girls. He’s come up here to the nosebleed sections of Atlanta’s Philips Arena to hand out tickets, a frequent show ritual in which he upgrades about 20 lucky random fans to floor seats. But everywhere he goes-walking along the side aisles by the floor seats, heading through the food courts, riding the escalators-he is recognized by girls and moms who react much the way you might expect them to react if it was Bieber himself.
He’s mastered the art of never stopping: When fans call his name, he’ll smile or point a quick finger, but never, ever, stop. But finally, somewhere in the 300 sections, practically touching the arena ceiling behind the stage, he succumbs to one fan’s picture request, which quickly turns into a swarming mass of screams and flashes. And as it closes in, I instinctively turn my back to the crowd and start edging toward the door, Braun in close tow.
BIEBER + BILLBOARD
When we make it to the polished cement walkway of the arena we walk about 10 steps ahead of the mob, which stalks behind, uncertain for a moment of what to do. Braun seizes the opportunity. “Are you ready?” he asks. I have no idea what he means. And then: “Run!”
We do as he says, and don’t look back.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Justin Bieber’s Jan. 29 “Believe Acoustic” album-containing eight reworked tracks from his platinum-selling 2012 album Believe, plus three new songs, all written or co-written by Bieber-will debut on the Billboard 200 at No. 1. This will mean that he’s charted a new No. 1 album for four years in a row, and that he’ll have his fifth No. 1 album overall. That’s more than any other artist has achieved before turning 19. On Feb. 9 he’s hosting “Saturday Night Live.”
The Believe Acoustic album is a coming-home of sorts, says Braun, who notes that they recorded the album in part because “this is how fans first knew Justin,” he says. “Even with ‘Baby,’ we put an acoustic version online weeks before the studio version.” Such Believe hits as “Boyfriend” and “As Long As You Love Me” are entirely reworked, stripped down with new phrasing. Bieber’s voice is strong throughout. And perhaps of greatest note are the three new songs he wrote, including one called “Nothing Like Us,” which he says is about his breakup with Selena Gomez.
After weeks of blog speculation about the meaning of both Bieber and Gomez separately and publicly performing “Cry Me a River”-Justin Timberlake’s famous kiss-off song for Britney Spears-“Nothing Like Us” is far more salve than salvo. It sounds like the heart-broken teenager that Bieber in all probability is.
Braun acknowledges another reason for making the acoustic album now. “This is my reason, not his,” Braun says. “But I want him to win a Grammy some day.” It’s a sensitive topic. Despite his success in 2012, Bieber wasn’t nominated for a Grammy when nominations were announced Dec. 5. That night, Braun took to Twitter and was vocal in his belief that Bieber was snubbed. “I just plain DISAGREE,” he posted. “The kid deserved it. Grammy board u blew it on this one.”
Through it all, Bieber has been all but silent with the press. At the American Music Awards in November, he did no red carpet interviews. In fact, this session with Billboard marks the only major interview Bieber has done for the release of Believe Acoustic. It’s hard to blame the guy for not wanting another interview that ignores his massive music success and instead only wants to ask about why he broke up with Gomez and if he inhaled.
I sat down with Bieber in his dressing room. He’d spent the day in Atlanta, the town Braun brought Bieber and his mother to in 2008 when he first found Bieber singing-yes, acoustic songs-on YouTube. Today has been grueling.
Bieber agrees to a half-hour interview that ends up lasting well more than an hour, until he needed to start his pre-show ritual. When we part ways, he laughs when someone tells him the masseuse he is about to see is “a looker.” “Whooo,” he jokes, and slaps my ass as he squeezes past me and disappears down the corridor. He seems every bit a normal 18-year-old kid.
Unless something really unexpected develops, Believe Acoustic will be your fifth No. 1 album. No one in the 55-plus-year history of our charts has accomplished this at your age. How do you wrap your head around this? Is the history important to you?
Of course. I feel blessed that I’m able to do what I love for a living. I can support my family. I grew up without a lot. I remember ordering food off the menu with my mom and we’d have to share because we couldn’t afford more. I love performing. When I go onstage and I see these people? That’s what I do it for.
Is a No. 1 album a validation?
Definitely. It shows that I’m still making good music and people are supporting me and I’m not going anywhere any time soon. This is just an acoustic album of an album that I’ve already put out and it’s going to go No. 1-that shows people that I’m still here and that talent rises above everything else. There’s so much going on. Talent rises above all of that.
Speaking of validation, let’s talk about the Grammys. Your manager Scooter Braun took to Twitter when the nominations were announced and you didn’t get one. How did you feel about it?
I felt the same way that Scooter felt, I just can’t really… it’s good that he can put it out there and say that. He had my back just like any manager would. My whole life I’ve dreamed of winning a Grammy. At this point, the excitement of that has gone down. I’m more excited to just make great music for my fans. That’s just something that if it happens, it happens.
It’s not about you disapproving of other artists.
No, of course not. I’m so happy for the other artists who got nominated and have won Grammys. I’m 18 and I think that I have a lot ahead of me, so I’m not worried.
Will you go to the Grammys this year?
I will not be there.
Is there anyone that you’re pulling for that night?
Chris Brown. I’m a fan. His music is really good. That’s what they should focus on: the music.
There’s been all this back-and-forth with both you and Selena Gomez separately covering “Cry Me a River.” The blogs have a field day speculating about what happened to your relationship.
There’s so many rumors. People say I call Selena every day and she won’t pick up the phone or I’m chasing her down, and these are all fake stories.
Do you pay attention?
I don’t go on blogs or anything like that. I hear things. People tell me if something happens on the Internet. It gets back to me, definitely.
Listening to the new songs, it seems like it’s been a wearying time for you. “Yellow Raincoat” has the line, “Fame, money and girls drive you crazy.” And of course “Nothing Like Us,” it’s kind of heavy. Are you having fun?
Definitely, all of the time. I’m 18. I have a great team around me. I have great friends. We have a blast. They keep me occupied and my mind off of the negative things. It’s funny when people are like, “You’re 18. What have you really gone through?” I’m thinking, “What do you mean? When you were 18, you don’t think that you went through stuff?” When you are 18, you’re going through that transition. You have a high school girlfriend, you might not. Going to college. Figuring yourself out, leaving home.
That’s one of the reasons that I like “Nothing Like Us.” You manage to take this very real, young feeling and make it universal. I like that the song was sweet. Scooter told me you wrote it about what happened with Selena, but he didn’t tell me what it sounded like. And if you read the blogs, you think it might be an angry song. Instead, it feels.
Because at the end of the day, there’s nothing like us, you know? That’s just it. It is what it is. People are going to relate to that.
You’re pretty heartbroken?
I’m not in the happiest place that I’ve ever been. I’m trying to get through what I’m going through. Like I said, I have my really close friends to cheer me up and keep me going.
You’re working on your next album essentially?
Either next album or for something to release through the Internet. I have so much on my mind, I want to put it in my music. I know I just put out Believe, and this acoustic album, but I want to produce music.
Do you ever think of a day when perhaps you won’t be “hot right now”?
Yeah, of course. I don’t think that I’m going to be boiling hot for the rest of my career. I think that, if I’m not on top. it would be because I didn’t want to be. It would be a time when I wanted to take a break and do movies or take a break and raise a family. When I’m doing music and I’m really focused, I’m not going to not be where I am.
When you look back over the last couple of years, is there anything you regret?
I don’t have any regrets. I live and I learn. My mom says, “You got to learn the hard way, don’t you?” That’s me. I learn the hard way. But it’s about how I pick myself up and be better and stronger.
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